I was recently invited to be part of a small speaker panel at a local church in my home town of Salt Rock, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
As I prepared for the session, I became overwhelmed by all the bad news that is currently surrounding us in South Africa.
I tend to steer clear of regurgitating reams of negativity as I feel the mainstream press does a great job of keeping us all up-to-speed with that. But my mind couldn’t help going there: the brazen looting at VBS, the constant revelations of state capture; Johan Booysen’s reminder to us of the rot at the National Prosecuting Authority; the various commissions of enquiry that literally spew forth the rotten, effluent of the Zuma years. The Rand tumbling. Petrol prices sky-rocketing. Good people fleeing for foreign shores and bad people remaining, unpunished. It made me feel quite ill to be honest.
If you are feeling a degree of discomfort or even depression at the state of our nation and indeed the world then in my mind you are simply human. It tells me you care; you desire the fulfilment of your right to happiness; you are concerned about the betterment of the world; for safety and prosperity and well-being for all and not just the entitled rich; for the well-being of our children.
But questions kept coming to me that troubled me: Is my discomfort, my depression based on reality or on an invention of some kind? Who or what is controlling my state-of-mind; me or the news media or my friends or what I read on social media? Am I choosing to believe what is negative to fulfil some need for belonging; belonging to a legion of South Africans who are trapped in their own victimhood? Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
I asked these questions because there was appearing a genuine paradox in my mind: I cannot possibly deny that we are better off as a nation today than we were this time last year and yet I feel worse. How come?
So let’s unpack this for a moment: If this time last year I had told you that Zuma would be gone, Cyril Ramaphosa would be our President; Tito Mboweni would be our Minister of Finance; Shaun Abrahams would have gone; Tom Moyane would have gone; Nomgcobo Jiba would have been suspended; some R100 billion worth of foreign direct investment would have been committed; a slew of commissions of enquiry would have been established to investigate state capture and the demise of SARS – would you have taken it? I would have!
So again, why am I more negative today than this time last year? And why do I know that I am not alone?
The truth is that the truth will set us free. However, it will cause us considerable discomfort even pain, whilst it does. We are currently buckling under the burden of bad news. Because as much as I may list all the great things that have happened since last year, they have come amidst revelation after stinking revelation of the depth to which our nation has sunk in the past decade. And as we ingest our weekly, daily sometimes hourly doses of News24, Daily Maverick, City Press or whatever our media poison happens to be, we are systematically contaminating ourselves with the truth. And we are right at the bottom of the bad news barrel right now; we are in a very deep, dark place and we are struggling to see the many colourful and beautiful lights that are surrounding us.
I am not saying we shouldn’t expose ourselves to what is happening around us – far from it. The evangelist Billy Graham used to say that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I believe this wisdom should apply to us all. But we must also guard against over-exposure; we must be wise in what we consume and what we believe because not all “truth” is true; not all truth is good or helpful; not all truth needs to be immediately consumed.
This column is all about giving people small things we can all do to make South Africa a better place. But without hope (as opposed to optimism) we are not able to breathe; we are not able to give or serve; we are not able to fulfil our purpose for the world. We must take time; find some quiet and stillness and allow ourselves to find the good amidst the bad; shake off this crushing weight of negativity and take some time to focus on just how and why and where we are better off today than a year ago.
Then – charged with a lightness of being and a slight twinkle in the eye – we can be that change that we wish to see in the world.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death
Today I was touched by an e-mail forwarded to me by a dear friend Dr Leann Munian. She is a Paediatrician who was writing a farewell note to her colleagues before transferring to another hospital.
In the note she wrote a fascinating line about a major shift in her thinking and her career that took place some time ago after a stint in Syria with Gift of the Givers:
“…I returned to the hospital of my birth, “to save the world”, “one baby at a time”.” What a remarkable thought process; that changing something as huge as the world can happen one very small baby at a time.
But it jogged my memory, because my dear friend and colleague Dr Rama Naidu puts the same thought in a slightly different way. Now for some context, this man is a world class agent of change who has impacted on countless numbers of people during his remarkable career. But he works in small groups of between 8 and 80 people at a time, facilitating their growth and development. He says: “We change the world one conversation at a time.” This echoes one of my gurus Peter Block who talks about changing the world “one room at a time; the room you are in.”
Another friend and colleague Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Partners for Possibility – the world-renowned South African program that pairs school Principals from under resourced schools with business leaders in a transformative co-learnership – talks about changing the world “one partnership at a time.” There simply must be something in this thinking if all these doctors are saying the same thing!
But it sounds fanciful, even flaky, especially within the parameters of our Western thinking that is so dominated by outcomes, measurement and numbers. In the NGO field, tell a potential funder you save the world “one baby, one conversation, one partnership at a time”, they will smile and tell you to come back and talk when you have “taken your project to scale”. In the business world, have a conversation that is about change outside of the context of a rising bottom-line and you will quickly hear terms like “soft skills” being used.
We play this game because we must – or must we? It seems that all of us in any form of people-based, healing, transformation/change, “nation building” work have been on a journey to understand and accept that change and growth can only happen one of anything at a time. And this is on the positive spectrum. Just ask Adam Catzavalos how one racist WhatsApp message can change your life for the worse.
This may seem frustrating because we want positive change to happen quicker than this. It just doesn’t satisfy our hard-wired need – and the world’s expectation – for us to “deliver results” (aka numbers). It has taken me literally years to come to terms with this “one-by-one” thinking and I thank my friends above for always reminding me about this when I get frustrated by my own or our country’s seeming “lack of progress”.
This column is about each of us playing our part in the change we wish to see for our country and our world. So, the question is what is your “one at a time”? For my paediatrician friend it is a baby. For Rama it is a conversation. For Louise it is a partnership. For you it could be one customer at a time, one article at a time, one learner, one client, one staff member, one patient, one child.
The trick? Be for that person or situation everything you wish to see the world become.
Then the world will change. Not tomorrow or next week. But right now.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.
I recently saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that read Stop Crime Say Hello. This warmed the cockles of my heart because it was a campaign that I began nearly a decade ago. The message was very simple; at the end of the day, crime is simply a lack of love and respect for people and their things.
If we work together to restore these values to our society, crime will drop quite naturally. And for a country that has traded in disrespect and hatred for centuries, we need to focus the process of healing and restoration on restoring these simple values. We can create a peaceful society by reaching out to one another in the smallest ways and even the humble ‘hello’ has the power to build bridges between people.
The point of the campaign was of course never to negate all those big and necessary words/practises like multidisciplinary task forces, visible policing etc from the fight against crime in South Africa. But if we don’t add ‘active bridge building’ to that list we are – as my dear Dad would put it – peeing into a force nine gale.
Nearly a decade on and we are a markedly different country to what we were then. In some ways I think we were the kind of country that would quite naively give birth to campaigns like Stop Crime Say Hello. You might remember another campaign called EGBOK. It stood for Everything’s Going to Be Okay! We have grown up a little since then and we have begun to realise that whilst such positive ideas and slogans would provide a useful start to the reconciliation process, they were limited in how far they could take us.
Now, we are giving birth to things like dialogue forums that give people the time and space to discuss everything from white privilege to ethics and values. Now, groups of black and white friends meet weekly for meals to wrestle with and better understand their unique perspectives on the world. I am proud to say that even my local Anglican church is beginning a process of talking about the issue of land expropriation and what that means for people. Thank God the church is finally starting to talk about politics in a meaningful way.
But just in case you have a picture of everyone holding holds and singing Kumbaya, these conversations can (and indeed should) get very messy. Quite often our inherent – in some of us overt and in others dormant for years – racism, bigotry, patriarchy and sexism come flooding out and we get a sense that we are going backwards. But we are not. Conversation – or what we perhaps more richly refer to as dialogue – with all its dissenting voices and opinions – is really the only way that we generate new ideas and heal old wounds. We begin to see ourselves as connected with others rather than as beings separate from the whole.
We are given the opportunity to experience our own vulnerability and lack of knowledge of one another and to cringe at our own blind spots. It is in doing this hard but necessary work – spending time with people who look and behave differently to us – that our beliefs, opinions and behaviours start to shift. I have noticed that even people’s language changes when they start to expand their view of people and the world; it becomes more spacious and gracious. And of course, our purpose changes from one of acquisition and protection of assets to one of sharing.
Why do I write about all this now? After some 8 years writing this column – a column whose impetus was the Stop Crime Say Hello campaign – this will be my last piece for the Mercury. This news has given me the opportunity to reflect on many of the ideas I have had the privilege to express on these pages, and on the conversations that I have had with many of you as a result. Not all of them have been pretty but I have loved the interactions and I have grown as a result. A column gives a writer the chance to learn and mature in a way that few other disciplines ever can. I am very grateful for that.
I would like to end with a challenge for all of us to redouble our efforts to build bridges between people. I include in this, bridges between the poor and the rich. Because it really is impossible to build the type of society that we all wish to live in whilst we still have this hell-like gap between those who have and those who have not. If you have money, give more. If you employ people, employ more; if you care for people, care for more. And if all else fails and you have nothing left to give or do – just say hello to every person you pass.
Let’s continue the dialogue on my blog www.justinfoxton.com
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
I met up again with Justin Foxton, founder of The Peace Agency, a month or so ago.
Contrary to the intensity of our first encounter – a workshop at the Ilembe Chamber of Commerce on racism, freedom of expression and the state of our democracy – a weekend away with friends and family in the untamed African bush of northern Zululand provided the perfect setting to explore our respective angles on community development.
Justin recently set out some of these thoughts in his column in Independent Newspaper’s The Mercury. Our thinking was that they need urgent consideration for anyone working in or near communities:
One of the aspects of the work I (Justin) do would broadly be referred to as “community development” work.Typically, this involves going into peri-urban or even rural communities on behalf of neighbouring businesses or other concerned stakeholders and meeting traditional leaders, youth or women’s groups, trustees of local trusts, school governing bodies etc. to talk about their democratic rights and responsibilities, sustainable alternatives to violence, how to organise themselves into cohesive entities, or how to start a business.Now, when I refer to “communities” in the context of community development work, I am talking about areas that are under-developed and experience high levels of unemployment and poverty and the resultant ills. They often border developed and even affluent areas that attract large investment into local business. The general picture? A booming, productive, haven of economic vibrancy on one side of the street and a desolate, poverty-wracked haven of social ill on the other. The obvious – but unfortunate – effect of this picture is that the word “community” becomes a euphemism for lack and deficit. Of course, communities often take on this negative identity and live into it as a means of survival. This creates an unhealthy cycle in which a protest is followed by business, government, NGO’s etc. swooping in to save the day and quieten everyone down. Until next time. So this perception of communities as lacking leads us to a “fix them up” approach to community development. But we must acknowledge that – given the escalation of community tension and violent flare ups in our country – how we define communities and how we work with them, needs a radical rethink. The general approach is not working because it is premised on several “us” and “them” assumptions. For anyone who has worked in the types of communities referred to here, you will know just how dangerous these assumptions can be. This is because they can lead to us parachuting solutions into communities. These are usually “our side of the street” solutions to “our side of the street” problems. This leads to community anger because the benevolence is perceived as arrogant and self-serving – often rightly so. I must confess that I have learnt this lesson the hard way. Along with my colleagues some of our best intentions have resulted in death threats, being held hostage, damage to property including arson, theft and hijacking. You get this work wrong at your peril!
Justin offers an alternative construct, based on an approach to community development advocated by Peter Block in his book Community – The Structure of Belonging. Central to this approach is engagement; engagement that builds communities that are accountable and take ownership of their own destiny. This is the key ingredient that we have largely been missing when it comes to the building of community economies. To whet your appetite, here are a few of the steps that create this level of engagement:
Dialogue is key
Block suggests that all transformation, including a community’s economic prosperity, occurs through language. Engagement through dialogue allows community assets to rise and gifts to be offered freely. This causes a shift from community problems to community possibilities. Potential is unlocked as we listen to what people are saying, respond to their input and become prepared to change our plans and prioritise new possibilities, projects and activities.
Deep and effective engagement is an ongoing process that leads ultimately to transformation. Its building block is small group conversations that do not in themselves aim to provide solutions but rather focus on listening and asking the right questions. This allows community members to be heard and respected and to arrive at their own answers to their own problems. Block suggests that inviting people into a room and dividing them into facilitated conversation groups of 5–8 people is the basis of the transformation process and the container for the experience of belonging.
A community self-focus, where social and cultural nuances are not ignored or undervalued, is an important angle from which to explore community assets and possibilities. As Justin acknowledges, this approach takes time but the investment will pay off in the long run as communities become self-reliant and productive.
Have the ownership conversation
Communities won’t energise their own economic well-being if they don’t progress from blame to ownership; ownership that stifles entitlement and dependency. Such community building workshops should begin with questions like: What have I/we done to contribute to the very thing I/we complain about or want to change? How has my community contributed or reached out to stimulate enterprise and job creation?
The offering of gifts
Block maintains that communities must stop defining themselves by their lack and begin to focus on what they have to offer; their gifts; what is present and presented. Our job as community builders is to move the conversation away from deficit towards assets. He advocates that communities choose their destiny when they have the courage to acknowledge their own gifts and opt to offer these gifts to society at large. In the community economy context, how does a community use their gifts to stimulate enterprise and job creation, even in the smallest way? This question must challenge the view that the future of communities can only be improved with new laws and policies, more oversight and stronger leadership.
Finally, Justin and Cobus will be hosting a dialogue session around this approach to community development. Please contact us if you would like to be a part of that conversation.
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
By Cobus Oelofse – CEO Ilembe Chamber of Commerce
We have a national treasure in the National Treasury. There is little doubt that Pravin Gordhan now embodies this highest of unofficial titles; a title that we have applied to only a handful of men and women in the past few decades.
I realised just how fast this man was approaching national treasure status when I recently found myself with him on an SA Airlink flight to Nelspruit. Wearing a tweed cap to shield his shiny pate from the brutal Lowveld sun, he humbly agreed to having his photo taken with scores of fans whilst we waited on the runway to board our flight. Person after person – South Africans of all descriptions – took selfies with the Minister of Finance. Bear in mind that this man has held the most loathed title in any society; that of “tax man”. Bear in mind that this man revolutionised tax collection in our country during his time at SARS. Bear in mind that for years he has lightened our pockets by increasing taxes; bear in mind that he has done this whilst the public purse has been simultaneously lightened by all those entrusted to hold its strings. Yet in-spite of all this financial lightening and burdening, there we were queuing to have our picture taken with him as if he were a rock star. Those who know him well will tell you that he is a man of towering integrity. They will tell you that he is a South African of unbridled passion and commitment to the complete freedom of our people and the realisation of the full potential of our country. They will also tell you that he is fiendishly bright.But these values – great as they are – do not make a national treasure. Ironically that title is bestowed only on the humble great. Pravin Gordhan is fast becoming one of our humble great and his last (we all hope it is not his last, but alas) budget presentation proved this. It was not the maths of the speech that solidified his place in our history. In fact, many people will be gnashing their teeth at the fact that we are paying vastly more for vastly less. It was these words:
“Fellow South Africans, if we make the right choices and do the right things we will achieve a just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality. We will indeed transform our economy and country so that we all live in dignity, peace and well-being,”
If you did not know that I was quoting our newest national treasure (and you had never heard/heard of Jacob Zuma), you might say that I was quoting a/our President; these words have a presidential feel.
But he didn’t stop at general appeals for participation. He went on to issue a clarion call for us to participate with him in the task at hand: “This is the time for activists, workers, businesspersons, the clergy, professionals and citizens at large to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda and ensuring that we do have a just and equitable society. Obstacles there will be many. Overcome them. Detractors abound. Disprove them. Negativity inspired by greed and selfishness will obstruct us. Defeat the bearers of this toxic ethic. South Africans, wherever you are own this process; defend your gains; demand accountability. Be an active agent for change. Umanyano Ngamandla (Unity is power.)”
These words coming from our very own “broken man presiding over a broken society” would be laughable. But coming from a national treasure they have the effect of creating hope; presenting a vision and outlining a strategy to get there.
If we allow them to, these words could galvanise us into action; to pay our taxes yes, but then to pay attention to what we as individual South Africans could do to take back our power. He is inviting us to join him in fighting for a future – one that he seems to be positive about; he is inviting us to stop pointing out what is wrong – we all know what is wrong; stop whining whilst Rome is burning. He has modelled the way for us (another enduring feature of people who wear the title of National Treasure). All we need do is act.
In the immediate term, this must include an uncompromising commitment to our non-negotiable values. Punch drunk from the ongoing battering of the forces of corruption and greed, we must stand firm and not give into the temptation of; “they are doing it so why can’t I?”. This statement – this attitude – is, I believe, the single biggest danger currently facing us as a society. It will take discipline to resist this temptation but if we don’t, our demise will be fast and frightening.
In the meantime, Pravin Gordhan will need all the support he can get as the vultures’ circle. So, if you bump into him on a flight or anywhere else, have a selfie with a national treasure and thank him.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. All my writing – regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.